This Sat. Feb. 28, the Columbia City Ballet is performing one of their most heralded — and rarely produced — original ballets, Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green. Created and choreographed by CCB director William Starrett, the ballet takes some of Lowcountry painter Jonathan Green’s famously vibrant, vivid works and interprets them through dance. And not in any sort of loose, figurative manner. “There are 28 different paintings that come to life,” Starrett says. “The dancers actually come out the paintings.”

To stage this ballet, which premiered in Columbia in 2005 (and was covered by the New York Times), Starrett and his team spent three years figuring out how to bring Green’s paintings to the stage. That involved selecting which paintings to feature and coming up with choreography, of course, but also the much bigger challenge of translating Green’s works into stage-sized backdrops. “The stage paintings are 70 feet wide, and involved production in New York, and they were painted in Sweden,” Starrett says. “And the costumes — we spent hours and hours, days and days working to make sure the colors in all the costumes are equal to the paintings. I’m almost pickier than [Green] is trying to make sure the colors are as vibrant as they are in the paintings.” 

$1.2 million later, Starrett had come up with a wholly unique ballet performance featuring musical styles from classical to gospel and Motown, and ballet dancers working in varied dance genres, although the choreography is firmly rooted in ballet. “American dancers are known for being versatile,’ he says. “It’s still classically based, and the girls are on pointe for most of it, but there are very different styles of movement — jazz, African dance, classical ballet.” 

Off the Wall uses CCB’s diverse company of 30 professional dancers, all of whom are paid. “I think [the company] should represent the fabric of the community, and we have a substantial number of African-American dancers that I’m really proud of,” Starrett says. “We show the paintings: if there’s a black girl, we use a black dancer, if there’s a white girl, it’s a white dancer.”

The idea for Off the Wall dates back to 2002, when Starrett was awarded the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, South Carolina’s highest honor for artists working in the state. Green was the keynote speaker at the award ceremony, and he and Starrett hit it off. Later, Green — who is a lover of dance, and danced as a child — generously donated a painting for a CCB fundraiser, and Starrett found himself at a loss for words. “I was blown away,” he says. “I just tried to say something to pay him back, or respond, and I said ‘Jonathan, I want to make your painting into a ballet.’ I was just talking off the top of my head! Next thing I know I’m creating a full-length ballet of his paintings.” 

One of the themes that Starrett has tried to highlight in the show is unity. “It’s a celebration of everything positive that can come from unity,” he says. “It’s a celebration of freedom. Of this magnificent, fantastic melting pot that we have in the U.S.” 

Because it’s extremely expensive and involved to produce, the CCB only performs Off the Wall and Onto the Stage about once every eight years. So this is one of very few chances to catch the show. After performing it at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, they’re taking the show to Chicago. “Ever since we performed it there years ago they’ve been begging us to come back,” Starret says. “It’s a show where people who love the visual arts can discover the performing arts, and vice versa.” 

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